IF ONLY…

Have you ever lamented, “If only (fill in the blank)”? Most of us can probably think of something we longed for – and prayed for – but didn’t get. If only…those words speak to the ache in our hearts when life does not turn out the way we had planned. Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus, uttered those very words in their grief, after their brother Lazarus died. The story is found in John 12. The sisters had sent an urgent message to Jesus, “Lord, your dear friend is very sick” (V.11 NLT). Their thought was, “If only Jesus would come, he would heal our brother.” It’s interesting to note what Jesus did next: “So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days” (V.5). What? He stayed where he was…for two days! Anyone who has dialed 911, and then waited for an ambulance to arrive, knows how long a minute can seem when you are by the bedside of a loved one with a life-threatening illness or injury. No doubt Martha and Mary took turns leaving Lazarus’ bedside to search for a glimpse of Jesus coming down their street. Their anxiety must have ramped up with every minute of his delay. More than once, they probably released their frustration with exclamations of, “Where is he?” At his delay, they may have wondered, “Doesn’t he care?” When Jesus finally showed up days after Lazarus died, both sisters greeted him with, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Vs.21, 32). Onlookers remarked, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” (V.37). How about you? Have you prayed long and hard for something, and you are asking those same questions: Where is God? Doesn’t he care? He could easily answer these prayers, if he wanted to…Why doesn’t he? Are you beginning to despair? Are you ready to give up on your hopes and dreams? Most of us have a mile-long “If only…” list. There are lessons for us in the story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus: • Keep the faith: After saying, “If only,” Martha added, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask” (V.22). No matter how long we have waited for a response from heaven, we can have faith that even now, God is able to give us whatever we ask. • Never doubt God’s love: “So although Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days.” At times, God’s delays may cause us to question his love, but we can remind our selves that nothing can ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:35). • Remember that God’s purposes are greater than just for our comfort or pleasure: “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this” (V.4). It helps to remember that God works in everything for our good and to his glory (Romans 8:28). The more painful the loss, the longer the trial, the harder it is for us to see that at the time. • Believe in God’s power to resurrect dreams that have died: “Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out…” (Vs.43, 44). If your dream is God-given, he will resurrect it – in his time, and in his way – so that he will get the glory. • Share the stories of God’s resurrection power in your life: “Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus when they saw this happen” (V.45). There is someone who needs to hear your story of God’s deliverance and redemption in your life. Share the hope that is found in Christ today. If we can learn anything from the story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, let it be this: We serve an all-powerful God, who loves us, and has a wonderful plan for our lives – even now, when it seems that all is lost. When we do say, “If only…” may it be, “If only we could trust him more!” TODAY’S CHALLENGE: If you are despairing over hopes and dreams that have not materialized, lay them at the feet of Jesus. Pray for the faith to trust him more. Whether or not life goes your way, praise God for his love. Tell others about his...

GETTING PAST THE “WHAT IFS’

Some of the biggest battles I have ever fought never happened. I have spent too much time and energy in my lifetime focused on “What if?” scenarios that never materialized: • What if (you name it) happens? • What if (fill in the blank) doesn’t happen? I can conjure up worst-case scenarios at a moment’s notice. Can you relate? Our “What if?” questions are usually followed by “What will I do?” questions. The end result is anxiety over things that are out of our control. It is as productive as a dog chasing its tail. When I resumed my career as a social worker in 1988, after a time-out to raise my family, I argued with my soon-to-be supervisor Betty about her decision to hire me. I was afraid she was offering me the position because she knew me outside the workplace. I had received a number of promptings to apply for the job; it was part-time with flexible hours – a perfect match for my family’s needs. Jon and I discussed the pros and cons. We prayed for wisdom. We agreed that it seemed God was leading. I dropped off my resume as an act of obedience, but I truly thought the position was beyond my credentials. I was confident I would be turned down, and that I could return to my comfortable life as a homemaker. Waves of nausea rolled over me as I walked out of Betty’s office. I was unable to convince her I wasn’t qualified for the position – I got the job. Immediately the “What if?” questions began to flash across my mental screen. My biggest concern was, “What if we soon realize this job is bigger than me, and that Betty made a mistake hiring me? What will I do if she has to let me go?” I could only imagine the humiliation that would involve. As it turned out, I loved my new job! It was challenging, but meaningful. I grew personally and professionally as I was stretched in ways I would have never thought possible. The following year, my husband was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. My mind raced into the future: “What if Jon dies? What will I do if I‘m left as a single parent?” Jon and I agreed that I should seek full time employment to prepare me to take over supporting the family in the event of his death. My employer allowed me to move into a full time position as a Certified Addiction Counselor. It was my dream job, but once again I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. “What if” and “What will I do” questions swirled in my head. My husband died less than two years later. I was left to single parent our girls, who were eleven and thirteen years old at the time. It was every bit as hard as I feared it would be, but with twenty-two years of hindsight, I see that God gave me everything I needed to face my worst “What ifs.” Remember, He provided the job I would need before we had any idea what the future held. Once again, I grew into a position that stretched me every which way. It was one of the most meaningful times of my career, and truly, of my life. At times I still struggle with the “What ifs.” Years ago, when I shared my fears with a friend, Gail gave me a fresh perspective. She said, “What if that thing happens? And what if it’s wonderful?” I had only considered the negative possibilities. Now when I run disastrous scenarios through my head, I end them with, “And what if it’s wonderful?” How about you? Do you have your own “What ifs?” Do you worry, “What will I do?” Find encouragement in the words of Elisabeth Elliot: “God is not the God of what might be; He is the God of what will be.” Take hope in God’s promise: “…your strength will equal your days…The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:25b, 27 NIV). TODAY’S CHALLENGE: Listen to your self-talk. Identify any “What if?” questions. Share you fears with trusted friends. Ask them to pray for you. Consider that the outcome of your worst fear may just be wonderful. Trust that God will give you whatever you need for whatever lies...

THE LEAST OF THESE

Class hadn’t even begun when everyone passed the “final exam.” It was the first day of teaching a new series in Sunday School, using Philip Yancy’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? My plan was to begin class by showing a video clip of a powerful story told by Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church:   A homeless alcoholic named David used to sleep in his own urine on the steps of the church. One Easter Sunday he wandered inside, reeking of alcohol, urine and the streets. After the message, David approached Pastor Cymbala. The pastor admits his first thought was that he was going to get hit up for money. Instead, David fell into his arms and said, “I want this Jesus you spoke of.”  David received Christ that day and experienced a miraculous transformation in his life. After the clip, my plan was to ask the class, “What would we do if a man like David walked into our church this morning? Would we welcome him with open arms or would we be uncomfortable and hope he would go away?” Minutes before class began, a homeless man walked in…His clothes were filthy. He looked like he hadn’t showered in a long time. Truthfully, he looked a bit scary. I wish I could say I was creative enough to arrange for a homeless decoy to show up that day, but it was totally a God-thing.  In light of our lesson, I wondered if this man would experience grace that morning. I was relieved – and proud – to see several people walk over to welcome him. They invited him to help himself to coffee and donuts. He took a seat towards the back. Just as I began the introduction to our study, he got up and walked out, never to be seen again. After we viewed the video clip, I explained my intentions to ask how they would respond if a man like David walked into our church. I said, “I don’t have to ask, because I know what you would do. You passed the ‘final exam’ before you heard the first lesson!”  There is a powerful story circulating on social media these days about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who transformed himself in appearance as a homeless man. ( According to snopes.com the validity of this story is “Undetermined,” meaning they were unable to confirm it.) Supposedly, Steepek showed up disguised and disheveled for his first Sunday as head pastor of a 10,000-member church.  As the story goes, only three people said hello to him; the rest shunned him completely. The pastor taught from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46 that morning: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The people wept with conviction.  It would be easy to judge the congregation in this story, but let’s be honest: We all need reminding from time to time to keep our hearts and churches open to the least of these. Today’s Challenge: Let’s all check our hearts, faces and actions. Do they communicate, “You are welcome here,” especially to “the least of...

OUTCOMES: IN GOD’S HANDS

Got expectations? How’s your serenity? According to the Big Book* of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), our serenity (sense of wellness, peace of mind) is “inversely proportional” to our expectations. Therefore, when we anticipate a particular outcome with a person or situation, our serenity is low – especially when they are not cooperating with our plans! When we leave outcomes in God’s hands, our serenity level is high. AA made the prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr famous: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Ah, yes – the wisdom to know the difference… It is not wrong to have expectations. It is a problem, however, to expect or demand that life go our way. The disciples on the road to Emmaus had expectations. They were bemoaning the death of Jesus, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Hindsight is 20/20. We know that the outcome God planned through the death and resurrection of Jesus was far beyond their expectations. There is a lesson for us in that. I believe that God’s plan for me is always the best plan, but sometimes I am like my friend who said, “I never let go of anything I didn’t leave my claw marks in!” That is why I am grateful for that famous author, “Unknown,” who wrote this prayer: Lord, I am willing to receive what You give, to lack what You withhold, to relinquish what You take, to suffer what You inflict, to be what You require. I like peace of mind, so when I am asking God for direction regarding my hopes and dreams, I pray with my hands open and palms up, as a gesture of surrender of that thing or person to God. In April I signed on with an agent. He is currently representing my book proposal to a number of publishing houses. My hard work and dream of being published is out of my hands. I had the courage to change what I could: I gained new skills at writers’ and speakers’ conferences. I have honed my craft. I have followed the suggestions of mentors. And then, I did the work.  Whatever the outcome, I gave my best effort. I can live with that. How about you? Are you willing to hold loosely to expectations? Join me in  praying with open hands, palms up: Lord, I am willing to receive what you give… Today’s Challenge: Got expectations? Want serenity? Consider this: Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. The LORD works out everything for his own ends….In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:3, 4 & 9). * Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition, New & Revised 1976 by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc, p....

JESUS KNOWS ME

“Jesus knows me – This I love!” My friend Lisa shared this twist on the old favorite song, “Jesus Loves Me.” She saw it on a plaque in a friend’s home. A few keystrokes later (Google Search is a writer’s best friend) I learned that the phrase is actually the title of a children’s song written by Raymond Elliot. It was recorded by Kidz/Daywind Music Group. Jesus knows ME – and He knows YOU. Amazing. He knows our name and everything about us! Here are a few of the things He knows: He created us and knew us before we were born and He knows the number of days we will live. Psalm 139:13, 15-16 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written for me before one of them came to be.” He knows when we sit down, when we stand up, when we lay down, all of our coming and going, our thoughts and all of our ways! Psalm 139:1-3 says, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.” Sometimes I am surprised by the words that come out of my mouth, but Jesus knows my words before they are ever uttered. Psalm 139:4 tells us, “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” According to Matthew 10:30, Jesus even knows the answer to the trivia question, “How many hairs are there on Kathy’s head?” My hairdresser Kay has cut my hair for the past 35 years, but she probably wouldn’t even venture a guess as to the exact number of hairs on my noggin. Jesus, the Living Word of God, discerns our thoughts and the attitudes of our hearts. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Point made: Jesus knows us. He really knows us. As intriguing as it may be to think of all that Jesus knows about us, what I find most amazing is that, in spite of what He knows – He loves us! He really loves us! “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). Jesus loves us, in spite of ourselves – not because of whom or what we are. My friend Barb used to say, “We are all turkeys saved by grace!”  Jesus knows that, too. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV). Jesus knows us – and incredibly – Jesus loves us! My prayer for you today is borrowed from the Apostle Paul: For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ my dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19 NIV). Jesus loves us – this we...